Blurred Realities

blurred_realityI called a young colleague Ben today. It’s not his name. He wasn’t bothered, he laughed it off and asked if Ben was my son’s name (cheeky bugger). It’s not. Ben is the name of the main character in the novel I’m working on.

I think maybe I’m just a little disoriented. It happens sometimes when I’m writing. I get so totally engrossed in the reality I’m creating that perspectives blur and it takes a bit of time to remember which reality is which. Or who I’m really talking to.

It wasn’t so bad when I was writing the first two novels. Those worlds were a little easier to distinguish between. Maybe because the characters were younger. But it’s different now. The manuscript I’m working on at the moment is targeted to older YAs, 16-24-year-olds, and it’s at third draft stage. This is the stage where the plot and sub-plots are all consuming. Loose ends get tied up, holes are plugged, and story arcs smoothed. And it dominates the consciousness.

It’s always a huge relief to hear other writers talk about the way their characters speak to them; the solitary conversations while they’re walking the dog, or driving, or shopping, or lying in bed playing with insomnia. It’s comforting to know I’m not the only one who conducts entire conversations with imaginary companions. The concern that I may be teetering on the edge of sanity is often mitigated after such revelations.

I know that these ‘voices in my head’ would, under any other circumstances probably be cause for alarm. But at the moment, I have to talk with my 20-something main character to find out how he responds to that issue he has to deal with well enough to make the link and fill that plot-hole in chapter 23. I have to be open to hear what he has to say without confusing his reactions with those of the young (well, younger than me anyway) people I know; people like my friend’s sone, or my daughter friend, or that grown-up I taught all those years ago.

Our characters are often compilations of people we know, or have known. Elements of many combine to create an authentic representation of the emotions, actions and reactions, that make someone human. And that’s where people-watching (not stalking as my daughter sometimes likes to call it) comes in very handy. It helps to fine-tune details of particular mannerisms, and adds breadth to descriptions, all of which contribute to making that human an individual. Fallible. Vulnerable. Real.

The difficulty at the moment with blurred realities is because I’m writing a psychological thriller type narrative. And it’s scary. Because I know people like this. Not just as victims, but also as perpetrators; people capable of these horrible things. I’ve talked to them, worked with them, had coffee with them. I’m not saying those people have actually committed these heinous crimes, but I bet they’re capable of it. Sends shivers down my spine.

It’s when you start calling the nice people around you  by the names of the characters you’re creating that you start getting the raised eyebrow. And feeling a little awkward.

Now, who was I talking to…?

Sensitivity and the Writer

kittyI’m a delicate little flower. People tend to laugh when I say this, but it’s true! I am a very sensitive person.

I think people tend to laugh because sensitivity is all-too-often confused with weakness. But I am definitely NOT a weak person. I am someone who feels deeply. Sometimes I might struggle with expressing those feelings in a way that others can understand. Sometimes deep empathy is mistaken for aloofness because I cannot process and express the emotion immediately. Other times I express anger and frustration with tears. A lot of the time I simply don’t react externally, rather, I contain the depth of my emotion internally, requiring space and time to do so. But I DO feel it. Very much so.

It seems these days, sensitivity  is not looked upon as a positive. I remember in one job I had (in a particularly toxic workplace environment) a friend said to me “if only you didn’t cry,” as though ti was my crying, rather than the personality deficit of a dysfunctional bully, that was the reason he targeted me (as well as others who thought, felt, responded, differently to him.

I’ve been told to “toughen up” and “get a thicker skin” so often in my life, that for a very long time I thought there was something terribly wrong with me. I was compared to a turtle without a shell; an oyster with no protection; and told “the world would chew me up and spit me out” unless I changed. I tried to ‘toughen’ up, I tried not to take things personally, I tried the ‘water-off-a-duck’s-back’ philosophy. None of it worked for me.

And then, in a moment of great clarity, I realised that I didn’t want to do it that way. I didn’t want to shut down. I didn’t want to switch off from pain – my own or anyone else’s. I didn’t want to be one of those people who could walk past an old homeless man in the street and recognise the inadequacies of a society who has failed him. I didn’t want to look into the face of an impoverished child and not see the hunger. I didn’t want to close myself off to the friend locked in an abusive relationship and pretend it’s none of my business, or the colleague who cares for an elderly parent and a sick child who sometimes gets grumpy. I didn’t want to hear another news report about asylum seekers and not recognise the desperation in their actions. I didn’t want to grow a thicker skin if it meant walking around in a narcissistic bubble.

I realised that I am okay about being a sensitive person. I refuse to allow our government, or mass media, or colleagues, or ‘friends’, or society try to desensitise me. I am okay about being a sensitive person. While others may not cope with, or understand, or approve, my sensitivity, it lends itself very well to my writing. After all, how can a writer write with authenticity unless they have some degree of insight into their character’s emotions?

The short answer is: they can’t. It’s why writers tend to be such a sensitive bunch.

The writer who writes without an understanding of, or empathy for, the human psyche, can only skim the surface of the human experience. Human connection and interaction is what drives story. Regardless of genre, a reader must be able to connect with a character. They must be able to relate to a character, either positively or negatively, whether the character is human or not. A reader needs to see some of themselves in the characters they read, consciously or subconsciously, in fantasy or reality. Strong narrative should elicit some kind of reaction or response from a reader. And reaction comes from emotion. And emotion comes from empathy. And empathy comes from sensitivity.

To really get inside a character and create that relate-ability, a writer needs to be aware of and sensitive to, the full gamut of human emotion.

I’m a very sensitive person. And I’m okay with that. Because I’m a writer.